Steven Soderbergh is almost out the door. Last week we rolled out part one of our interview with the filmmaker about his impending retirement from cinema, his process of filmmaking, the “tyranny of narrative,” and his upcoming directorial efforts on the stage (including reviving an old film project, “Cleopatra“). Today, we deliver our final part of our lengthy chat with the director focusing on his Scott Z. Burns-penned pharma-thriller-caper, “Side Effects.”
We also spoke to the filmmaker about his eclectic cast — Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum and Vinessa Shaw — his final film, “Behind The Candelabra,” which will arrive on HBO at the end of May, the future of his “Magic Mike“-related spin-offs and much more. “Side Effects,” his penultimate film (read our review here), which arrives in the vein of the ’80s/early ’90s psychosexual thriller, is in theaters tomorrow, February 8th. And if that’s not enough, don’t forget to check out our comprehensive retrospective of all Soderbergh’s movies.
Was there an appeal about tackling this kind of psychological thriller genre you hadn’t done before?
Yeah. It’s a movie that kind of disappeared from the map after the ‘80s and early ‘90s. We were talking about “Fatal Attraction,” “Jagged Edge,” “Basic Instinct” which were really fun and then they kind of went away. I’m not even sure why, but I certainly thought [screenwriter] Scott [Z. Burns’] idea of using a very zeitgeisty social issue as a Trojan horse to make one of these twisty movies was a really great idea.
We talked to Scott about when he was still going to direct it and he called it a film about “the war on sadness.” And while it has that social and corporate implications, it does feature many twists and turns.
The hard part was really finding the balance for what I would call “Movie A” which is the girl with a problem movie and trying to make sure that we set that up in a way that was sort of realistic but also seeded the ideas for “Movie B” and “Movie C” which it mostly turns into. So we spent a lot of time working on that, recalibrating, tweaking, doing everything we could to make sure that you know we were playing fair.
It feels like a cousin to “Contagion” in the way it takes a social and corporate angle and then thrusts it into a genre.
Well it is kind of a companion piece to that, in that we’re talking about drugs and a certain amount of science but in a completely different context. The CDC’s not trying to make money, they’re just trying to solve a problem and keep people from dying and pharmaceutical companies are for profit and so their criteria and their agenda obviously is going to be quite different.
I like the idea of this young woman kind of caught up in the white water rapids of this pharmaceutical industry and being sort of swept along with not a lot of things to hang onto and feeling kind of out of control or untethered and then watch Scott take that and playing off our empathy. I’m really curious to see how successful we are in the first 35 minutes in kind of locking people into her experience because even while we were shooting it, I was very conscious of trying to do things with the filmmaking that kind of kept her emotional state front and center often to the point of not shooting the other people in the scenes that are talking to her. Just to see her face and others kind of moving around her. Anything I could do to make the feeling of it more subjective, I was looking to do.
Untethered is a good way to put it. Rooney’s a terrific emotional anchor and hook in the first act.
Good that was the goal. I had to work backwards in terms of my choices whether it’s how I’m shooting or scoring or composing. I have to make sure I’m working backwards from the very end of the movie which is very different from the beginning of the movie to make sure I’m not making choices that are going to screw up where the movie ultimately has to land.
What was the essential challenge of this film?
I think the first third of the movie was the part we worked on the hardest. It was the part that required the most attention that involved the most sort of versions of the movie that involved the tweaking, whether it was extra inserts or redoing scenes. The first 35 minutes got a disproportionate amount of attention because it was so crucial.
The pharmaceutical texture is so sinister. That must have been fun to play with.
Yeah, because it’s so faceless. It’s everywhere. We all know somebody that’s on something. I’ve been one of the many beneficiaries of the beta blocker Inderal because I don’t like public speaking, so that’s been a lifesaver. There are huge corporations that you know crank this stuff out, your doctor is kind of a go-between, but as the movie makes clear you never know what their agenda is specifically. And to what extent they’re really complicit in handing this stuff out. So it’s a sort of strange world. It will be really interesting to see how the movie plays outside of the U.S. where I think these issues are prevalent but not nearly as severely as they are here.
The corporate machinations. Is that where it starts for Scott?
Scott’s just one of those people that asks a lot of question about a lot of things. It’s classic Scott – as somebody who pays attention to what’s going on in the world – to look at this specific area of medicating depression and go, “Why is there a war on sadness? When did it become illegal? When did somebody decide that it’s inappropriate for us to be sad about stuff?” That’s a separate issue from people who are in a really horrible way and literally can’t function and are self destructing. I think what Scott and I were interested the idea that society thinks we should all be maintaining an identical equilibrium, all of the time. That strikes both of us as just kind of weird and unnatural. And as anybody will tell you on a lot of anti-depressants, “I don’t have the lows but I don’t have the highs either.”
Jude Law and Rooney Mara fit into your troupe perfectly. Do you wish you discovered them earlier? Before you’d retired?
Jude is somebody I’ve actually known casually for a long time. I was friends with Anthony Minghella so I’ve known him since the late ‘90s just off and on and I’ve always wanted to do something with him. I felt there was some nice symmetry in doing three in a row with Channing [Tatum] and obviously for reasons we can’t discuss, he ended up being a very sort of helpful tool in making the ride as fun as it is. It’s funny, Scott brought up Catherine Zeta-Jones – who I didn’t think about even though we’re discussing “Cleopatra” – and he suggested her. But I’m glad this was the first Rooney movie for me because it’s so different from “The Girl With The Dragon Tatttoo” and it’s such a great showcase for her range. She plays this sort of freak from another planet in ‘Dragon Tattoo’ and then in this she gets to play you know that girl next to you on the subway, that girl at work. She seems to be one of those people wandering around New York half lost, that we all pass every day. And she pulls you in and that’s tricky because the first 35 minutes – she’s in a circumstance that’s tricky and her husband’s been away and he’s coming back and they don’t have any money, but you have to find this balance where she just doesn’t start to annoy you. So I think she, as a screen presence, she’s pretty compelling.
Did you compare notes with Fincher about her?
Not too much because I think you’d be hard pressed to find two people who use such different methods to get to a similar place. But I knew her from him, I just knew how much he liked her. I’d seen an early cut of ‘Social Network’ and said, “Who’s that girl? She’s fantastic.” He said “Yeah, she is good,” and when she was in the running for ‘Dragon Tattoo’ I was renting an editing room in David’s facility so I was sort of on the sidelines for all of that casting noise. He was telling me, “I think I’m going to go with her,” then when he was done, he went, “You’re going to love her. She’s just a real thoroughbred, you just wind her up and she goes.”
Vinessa Shaw too is underused but I think she’s really great in this as well.
It’s funny, because I worked with her when she was 16 on “Fallen Angels,” this TV anthology thing I did for Showtime. I did two noir half hours and she was in the first one. When her name came up for “Side Effects,” I thought it was perfect to close this career gap, this is too great. I was very happy she’s grown up into a very impressive young lady.
You talked about some of the films that you looked at, were there any specific filmmakers?
I think I watched “Fatal Attraction” and “Klute” a lot. They’re both very well directed and very New York movies. I watched both of those sort of on a loop before we started. It’s not the same thing but there were aspects of both that I really wanted to steal just in terms of atmospheric and emotional tonality.
Do you ever have radically different cuts of movies?
Well it depends. “The Limey” didn’t start out that way. That one went through probably the most radical transformation of all. “Solaris” went through quite a bit of playing around. “Contagion” went through a lot of playing around. We did like a week of reshoots on that to make a very radical cut work. Like we were having trouble finding a shape and then we did a 90-minute cut that was pretty you know, pretty drastic but it worked. It needed material to support the new structure. So we went back and shot scenes to make that structure work.
“Contagion” in script form was a 2 1/2-hour movie.
Oh, it was 2:30 in the editing room too. We shot all that. The script was 160 pages or something, it was much longer.
So that was some massive shearing.
Yeah, it was a tough call that had to be made and you know it’s never fun as a director to have to sit down and write letters to people who are not going to be in the movie anymore. Like that’s horrible and it was one of those situations but the movie needs what it needs. You have to kind of submit to it at a certain point. It was really resisting all attempts to sort of organize it until we gave ourselves this kind of arbitrary line of, “well if it was 90 minutes long what would be left?” What can you absolutely not get rid of? That became a sort of opening to fix it.
Do you prefer the editing process to shooting?
Yeah, it’s so endlessly interesting what can be accomplished by doing so little sometimes. It’s amazing what you can create meaning where there was none, you can invert the meaning of something just by ordering things a certain way or holding them a certain length of time. I’m just fascinated by what happens when you put a shot up and hold it for a certain amount of time and then put another shot after it. I’m just stunned that in that short amount of time a narrative starts to emerge. It’s just kind of crazy.
So I guess it ends with ‘Candelabra’ this summer. People are likely expecting a funny, campy thing.
Yeah it’s not. There’s funny stuff in it but it’s very emotional and I think they’ll be surprised at where it lands. It certainly surprised me when I read the book the way the book landed.The tone is very reality-based, it’s just a crazy environment they are in, but halfway through the movie you kind of forget the whole gay thing because it’s just the same conversations everybody has. It’s just they’re wearing really crazy clothes.
That was Marvin Hamlisch’s final score? Did he finish?
Yeah fortunately for as us he finished all of his work. It’s different from his work in “The Informant,” in that there’s one original piece that he had to write, but most of it was arranging existing pieces of music in the style that he played. So he had to come in and kind of unify all of these different pieces to make it all sound like it was him.
It must be nice to end it all with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas again.
Yeah, it really felt like we got the band back together and really it was fun to do. It was harder for them than it was for me in the sense that they both at certain points had to spend a lot of time in the makeup chair and there wasn’t a very long schedule so the page counts could be high on certain days. In the case of Michael there was a lot of rehearsal for all of the music stuff. It was a brief but very intense period but it was really fun.
Are we going to see this at Cannes?
I don’t know, I hope so, that would be great. But they don’t announce that stuff until like March or April. We’ll see it here in May, the end of May.
There’s all the “Magic Mike” stuff. The sequel, the stageplay. Will you be involved at all?
We talked a little bit when the movie was done and within a couple of weeks of being released we were sort of looking at the kind of chatter that was being generated online, we started to talk about the fact that this was something that would translate really well onstage. We started spit balling ideas about how it might work and whether there’s a sequel or not, I’ve made it clear: I’m happy to be the consigliore on all of this stuff and weigh in on things, but I don’t want to direct any of these things. I don’t want to have day to day responsibilities because I’m trying to go off and do something else. So I’m going to help as much as I feel I can and then somebody else is going to have to really drive these things, but I have no doubt that it will happen.
As an early adopter: 48 Frames per second? 3D? Shooting in the IMAX format? Did any of these things interest you before you got out?
It’s great that there are all of those tools available to a filmmaker to enhance whatever story they’re telling and I’ve certainly been able to take advantage of some of these new technologies in a way that’s really benefited me and the movies in an absolutely tangible concrete way. The only frustrating thing for me is I wish I’d had it all sooner.
Do any of these tools appeal to you at all?
IMAX would be a little tricky because the cameras are so damn big. And the 48 frame thing I find a little disorienting. There’s a technical reason for that which is how much information your brain can actually process. There was an article I read that said when you start to go above 40 frames – the point was this is never going to look natural. This isn’t a matter of your brain getting used to it, your brain is wired to deal with a certain amount of scanning that goes on when you look at something and this is never going to look normal.
You could argue the same thing about 3D, but audiences seem to have adjusted.
Well, I haven’t seen a ton of it and everybody tells me that “Life of Pi” is the best 3D they’ve seen. I did some tests. There was a moment where we toyed with the idea of “Contagion” in 3D because I thought, “Well somebody’s going to do a drama in 3D at some point.” But we ended up not going that route because a couple of the basic tools, the basic shots that you use in a lot of drama – I felt looked a little weird. I wasn’t confident about it and I knew it was going to take more time that we didn’t have. I don’t think it’s ever going to become the norm.
No? But every tentpole is now in 3D.
No. I don’t think it will ever become the default format because ultimately it’s nice when it’s used well but the bottom line is you don’t need it. I still think “Avatar” is the biggest movie in the world without it. I don’t think that’s why it’s the most successful movie of all time.
You shot second unit on the “Hunger Games” and you’ve offered to edit “The Canyons.” Is that kind of role still of interest?
Oh, sure I’d love to be flown in to do triage, that would be fun. That could be my new career. [laughs].
“Side Effects” opens on February 8th. For deeper extra credit check out our extensive Soderbergh interview from last year.